US humourist skewers newspaper industry

Editor & Publisher interviewed US humourist and syndicated newspaper columnist Dave Berry after he won 2013 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement award, and the interview was excerpted on the blog Newspaper Death Watch. When asked why newspapers have cut down on their humour columns, Berry responded:

Newspapers have had a consistent problem over the past 30 to 40 years that whenever they are offered two options, they always pick the one that is more boring and less desirable to readers.

Personally, I attribute the modern failure of newspapers to English majors. We let our business be run by English majors, but since the model was a foolproof way of making money and the only place for Sears to buy and print a full-page ad, they could do whatever they wanted. This created the notion that whatever they were doing had huge market demand, and when the Internet came along, we found out that wasn’t necessarily the case.

That’s an incisive comment, not because English majors were running the business, but because we’ve had a shift from a time when newspapers had almost a licence to make money to a much more challenging environment. This shift from a pretty lazy business model to one where we had to be creative about how to sustain journalism is still playing out. To make enough money to support a news operation approaching the scale that we have now we’ll need to work smarter and harder to rebuild the business. I also think it would be realistic to cede that it’s probably not possible to retain the size of organisations that we currently have in the US and western Europe. What’s the optimal size to provide quality coverage for a community? I don’t know, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to find out.